BY BETT KINYATTI
I don’t own any piece of furniture upholstered in Ankara. Not in my home, studio or Pinterest idea boards. What I have though, are maxi Ankara dresses hanging in my closet. Those ready-made ones from La Belle at Imenti House. I wear them to church on Sundays and to those events with a dress code that says ‘the mother-in-law is watching’.
What these Ankara pieces subtly tell the world is, “Look at me. I’m African and 34, I dictate the terms of my personal style. My skin glows with melanin. I’m a child of our roots and a protector of the motherland. I dance to the beat of our African drums. Wakanda forever.”
I don’t own any Ankara-clad furniture – I’ve said that already – but I secretly envy folk who do. I really do. I’ve been to spaces littered with such accent pieces. A modern bench here, a cocktail chair there, some throw cushions on the floor, lampshades and pots of houseplants draped in Ankara, duvet covers. I haven’t seen Ankara wallpaper. Yet.
It takes a certain palate to style your space in Ankara. A piece upholstered in Ankara says in resolute, “Look at me. I’m adventurous and boldly Pan-African. You can’t resist but steal glances at me. You wonder how much tasteful gaudiness can be contained in the seams of one handcrafted piece. You come for the cultural patterns and stay for the overt sense of Africanism. Wakanda forever.”
I don’t have the palate to style my space in Ankara. At least not yet. I’m open to it, though, because you never know where your style voice will take you.
Ankara is also gorgeous fabric. Even if you don’t fancy it for your closet or your space, you must admit it’s gorgeous. It dances in your eyes. Hypnotizes you with its dynamic patterns. It’s traditionally contemporary, stylish not trendy.
Several questions about styling my space with Ankara keep me up at night. Questions like, should I style around the Ankara furniture and accessories, or should I ask them to fit wherever they so desire? Will the pieces upset the style cohesion I’ve been conscious to create and maintain? These pieces will steal all the personality in a room, won’t they? Actually, they’ll have so much personality the room won’t contain it.
Moving away from the artsy elements, I also chew like cud, questions about the practicality of Ankara itself for daily use. Take a couch for the living room. Will the Ankara inhale and exhale with strong breaths as the family slumps down on the couch to watch some TV or rise up to get plates of food from the kitchen? Will the stitching hold its own? Does the fabric wear and tear with grace, or does it fade with an African accent?
We have a daughter; Muna is three and playfully destructive. She colours things, anything, with crayons and water paints. I picture her using the Ankara couch as her canvas – will it survive her artistic expression? Can we scrub it clean with regular detergent? Will the spot we’ve scrubbed bruise like a wound?
I spoke to a fabric purveyor. She’s only known as Juliana in the Ankara circles. A one-name influence. Like Beyonce. Juliana supplies fabric to a handful of local artisans who craft accent pieces using Ankara. I shared my concerns with her.
“Is the same fabric for clothes the same one used for upholstery and interior decor?”
“It is! You’re surprised, huh? Ha-ha. Six yards costs between 1,500 and 2,500. Just the same as the one for clothes. We source them from around East and West Africa.”
“I honestly didn’t know that. I thought they were cut from a different clothe” Catch that pun? “And how do you care for the fabric once it’s upholstered?”
Juliana exhaled loudly into the phone. There was a racket where she was. I imagined her in a workshop of fundis with their noisy Singer machines, a mist of enduring perspiration hanging low. She said, “The same way you care for your Ankara cloths is the same way to care for Ankara furniture – clean it cold water and a gentle bar soap, don’t scrub it with harsh detergents. You can also get professional cleaners to clean them for you.”
Aha! Steve of EcoWash comes to mind. Steve runs a gig that cleans cars seats and engines, furniture, rugs, carpets, mattresses and pretty much anything, using chemicals imported from Dubai. They don’t use water at all. This water-less solution is imported from Dubai.
The stuff is washed in your digs, then taken outside to dry in the sun for about 30 minutes. It smells so fresh and so clean after. None of that heavy whiff of chemicals that’d make you want to gag.
Steve and his team cleaned our furniture last December, before we began hosting guests for Christmas. It wasn’t smart timing on my part because a few days after he did the thorough job, before he’d even withdrawn the Mpesa I’d sent him, one of our tipsy guests spilled red wine on the seats. Red wine, Christ! It seeped all the way onto the white fabric beneath the cushion. Looked like a crime scene. Or a period on day three gone wrong. I almost collapsed.
Anyway, Juliana continued, “Kenya has the craftsmanship and material to build quality Ankara pieces, so yes, our furniture can last as long as furniture upholstered from other types of imported fabric.”
You know what the English say about pudding – the proof is in the eating. I’ll start with a spoonful, thank you very much. GB, my hubbae (I hate that word, hahaa), brought an old round ottoman from his bachelor pad. It’s very ugly but sturdy, weighty with sentimental value – I’ll have it reupholstered in Ankara, then mature from there.
Maybe one day I’ll surprise everyone and reupholster our entire dining room out of the fabric of my Ankara dresses.
An edited version of this story first ran in the Saturday Nation, under my Crafts and Culture column. Look out for it every Saturday.1